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Foundation Announces December 2009 Grant Round

Neurological Foundation Announces December 2009 Grant Round Recipients

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand awarded more than $1 million in research grants, travel grants and scholarships for its December 2009 funding round, announced on Monday, December 7.

Shakila Rizwan of the University of Otago received the prestigious Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship for a study on potential epilepsy treatments. Miller Post-graduate Scholarships were awarded to Lisa Smith of the University of Otago, and Amelia van Slooten from the University of Auckland. Tertiary institutions throughout the country were recipients, with the University of Otago, University of Auckland, Victoria, University of Wellington, University of Canterbury and Lincoln University all having successful applications.

Grants include $149,076 to Dr David Palmer of Lincoln University for his unique research into gene therapy treatments for Batten’s disease. Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie of the University of Otago was awarded $191,442 for a study into Parkinson’s disease that will introduce a new research technique using light pulses to study brain cells to New Zealand.

Neurological Foundation executive director Max Ritchie said it was heartening that the Foundation was able to maintain its research budget during these difficult economic times.

“Moreover we see the quality of research grow from year to year. New Zealand neuroscience is some of the best in the world, and this is reflected by the depth and expertise of the grants funded.”

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For more information, images and interviews please contact:

Adrienne Kohler

Communications manager

Neurological Foundation of New Zealand

09 309 7749 ext 7, 027 223 2757

Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship

For those who have completed a PhD and wish to develop their research further. This work can be undertaken at either New Zealand or overseas universities or hospitals and is for a two year tenure.

Development of a new tool for treating epilepsy: on-demand seizure prevention

Shakila Rizwan

Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology

University of Otago


Epilepsy is a common brain disorder, with up to 40% of sufferers failing to achieve good seizure control. This project aims to develop a new treatment strategy for delivering seizure-suppressing inhibitory neurochemicals to the region of the brain from which the seizures originate. Experiments will be performed in slices of brain tissue, and will investigate the effects on individual cells of applying inhibitory neurochemicals in normal tissue, and using artificial models of seizure activity. Data generated will be an essential first step towards testing the efficacy of the technology in a whole animal model of epilepsy.

Miller Postgraduate Scholarship

For non-medical students who have already completed their undergraduate degree (BSc, BA etc.) and a Masters degree (MSc, MA etc.) to allow them to undertake a PhD course at a NZ University.

Correlating expression of dopamine receptors with mechanisms of movement learning in single neurons of the striatum.

Lisa Smith

Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology

University of Otago


Parkinson’s disease is a disorder characterised by loss of the brain chemical dopamine, with resulting difficulties in movement. Replacement of dopamine using L-DOPA is the mainstay treatment but in some cases it is associated with the development of abnormal movements called dyskinesias. These abnormal movements may be the result of an exaggerated learning mechanism where fluctuations of dopamine are working on overactive dopamine receptors. This study will determine the expression of dopamine receptors in normal brains and in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease, and measure the effect of fluctuations in dopamine to identify mechanisms amenable to future therapies.

Connexin43 peptidomimetic therapy as a novel strategy for enhancing neurogenesis after ischemic stroke

Amelia Van Slooten

Centre for Brain Research, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

The University of Auckland


Studies have shown that the brain attempts to repair itself following stroke by generating

replacement brain cells. However, inflammatory processes occurring after stroke prevent these new brain cells from surviving and repairing the brain. Connexins are proteins that form channels between cells in the brain and contribute to a variety of processes, including inflammation, by enabling communication between cells. This study will see if blocking these channels will reduce inflammation and allow newly generated brain cells to survive and replace the cells lost following stroke. This may result in the development of a novel therapeutic strategy for the treatment of stroke.


Developing neuroglobin towards a therapeutic lead for neuroprotection: characterization of the neuroglobin-cytochrome c interface

Assoc Prof Thomas Brittain, Assoc Prof Nigel Birch, Dr Joanna Skommer

School of Biological Sciences

University of Auckland


Previous research identified the way in which the protein neuroglobin protects nerve cells from the type of damage seen in stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. This study will further investigate the details of the structure of the neuroglobin protein, in order to design new proteins which are more effective. This information could lead to the design of small molecules which might potentially be used to reduce the brain damage which follows stroke or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers disease.

Stress, Neurosteroids and Depression

Assoc Prof Bronwen Connor, Dr Ailsa McGregor

Centre of Brain Research, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences,

University of Auckland

$76, 346

Depression affects 5-10% of the world’s population at any one time, with large personal and therapeutic costs, yet the mechanisms underlying the cause of depression and its amelioration by anti-depressant agents are poorly understood. Chronic stress has been implicated as a major cause of depression. This project will investigate the molecular and cellular changes induced by chronic stress and how these changes are associated with the onset of depression. The outcomes of this project will provide new perspectives on the cause of depression and the identification of potential therapeutic targets.

Developing viral vector gene therapy for CLN5 and CLN6 Batten disease in ovine models

Prof David Palmer, Dr Stephanie Hughes, Dr Graham Kay

Lincoln University and University of Otago, Dunedin


This project will use two unique sheep models of human Batten disease to develop gene therapy for these devastating neurodegenerative diseases of children. Sheep have large human-like brains ideal for this work. Different gene transfer vectors and targets in the brain will be tested to determine which work best, one target being a region of neuronal stem cell activity, effectively a stem cell repair therapy. Selected therapies will then be tested long term, to determine the efficiency of slowing or stopping the development of disease and to ensure that the process does not lead to other complications like tumour development.

Role of basal ganglia input on motor thalamus activity in Parkinson’s disease

Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie, Assoc Prof Brian Hyland, Dr Stephanie Hughes

Department of Physiology

University of Otago


Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by loss of dopamine in the brain. To fully understand the biological basis of Parkinsonism, we need to know what the lack of dopamine does to brain circuits that control movement. This project will employ a new method, using light pulses, to modulate brain activity in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease to learn critical information about changes that occur in the motor thalamus, a key component of the movement control circuit. Results will improve our understanding of dysfunctional brain activity underlying movement deficits of Parkinson’s disease, with the potential to improve current treatments or direct the development of new treatments.

Priming the stroke affected motor cortex with theta burst stimulation

Dr Cathy Stinear, Assoc Prof Winston Byblow, Prof Alan Barber, Ms Suzanne Ackerley

Movement Neuroscience Laboratory, Tamaki Campus

University of Auckland


Stroke is a leading cause of disability among adults worldwide. Many people who experience stroke have ongoing weakness and clumsiness in one hand and arm. In this study, people at the chronic stage of stroke will have a two week ‘burst’ of physiotherapy for their hand and arm. A non-invasive magnetic stimulation technique will be used before each session to prime the brain for a better response to therapy. The development of short and effective primed therapy protocols may lead to further functional recovery in people with stroke, and lessen the ongoing burden of stroke on patients and their families.

Small Project Grants

Immunomodulation of EAE with risperidone

Dr Anne La Flamme, Assoc Prof Bronwen Connor

Victoria, University of Wellington, Centre For Brain Research, University of Auckland


Multiple sclerosis (MS), which affects 1 in every 1500 New Zealanders, is a disease characterized by immune-mediated nerve degeneration leading to impaired vision, coordination, and paralysis. Immune cells are responsible for the damage to the nerves and subsequent clinical features of MS. There is no cure, and while disease-modifying drugs are available, they are often effective in only a subpopulation of MS patients. Previous research by this group found that that the anti-psychotic drug, risperidone, is effective at modifying MS in a mouse model of the disease. This project investigates the potential of this drug to treat MS.

Computer-based assessment of auditory processing disorders in school-aged children: A pilot study

Dr Natalie A Rickard

University of Canterbury

Department of Communication Disorders


Approximately 3-5% of school aged children exhibit listening difficulties resulting from impaired neural function, despite having normal hearing sensitivity. An important step towards effective identification and treatment of these children is to develop improved methods of assessing listening skills and differentially diagnosing auditory processing disorders, using interactive, computer-based tests. This study will use a new, clinically useful computer-based frequency patterns test to collect data from typically developing children, and to improve our understanding of the underlying nature of auditory processing disorders in children.

Bilateral cortical involvement of the long latency stretch

Dr Jonathan Shemmell

Human Motor Control Laboratory, School of Physical Education

University of Otago


Humans avoid many falls every day because our brain is capable of adapting our reflexes to suit a variety of environmental conditions. Damage to the central nervous system, such as occurs following a stroke, can disrupt this adaptation and reduce our ability to respond to unexpected changes in the environment (a crack in the pavement for example) This project examines the role of the right and left sides of the brain in adaptation of the stretch reflex to improve our understanding of the neural circuits responsible for postural control.

Summer Studentships

Subliminal Priming of Motor Inhibition in Autism

Max Major

Department of Psychology

University of Otago


The ability to inhibit competing actions has been found to be affected in conditions associated with dopamine depletion. Subconscious processes have been shown to influence the inhibition of competing actions and have also implemented the roles of specific neural events in these processes. The present study will utilize these same subconscious processes to investigate the neural events related to the inhibition of competing actions; with particular interest in patients with Autism – a disorder associated with depleted dopamine, of which, however, not much is known. This will help us better understand some of the underlying neurological processes associated with Autism.

A novel method to detect transplanted adult neural progenitor cells in vivo using 5-ethynyl-2’-deoxyuridine (EdU)

Natasha Naidu

Centre for Brain Research, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology

University of Auckland


At present the DNA marker BrdU is the most common way to detect stem cells. However, this involves harsh tissue treatments causing tissue damage, making it difficult to detect other cell markers. In contrast, the DNA marker EdU uses a novel “click-it” reaction system which requires no harsh tissue treatment for visualisation. This project will examine the efficacy of using the EdU click-it reaction to label stem cells and detect them following transplantation into the rat brain. The use of the EdU click-it system will provide a superior alternative to the current BrdU method and will greatly enhance our ability to visualise transplanted stem cells in the host brain.

Neurological Foundation Fact Sheet

The Neurological Foundation is a charitable trust that raises money for neurological research in New Zealand. Each year it awards more than $1.7 million in grants to New Zealand’s neuroscientists.

The Foundation receives no government assistance and is almost totally funded by the generosity of individual New Zealanders, with more than 98 per cent of contributions coming from donations and bequests.

The funds are capitalised and the interest is used to fund research grants. This system provides ongoing funding for career scientists and long-term research projects. All grant applications are internationally peer-reviewed to ensure only good-quality research is funded.

Since its inception, the Foundation has funded hundreds of projects and currently supports more than 50 research projects being run at tertiary institutions throughout the country.

This unique dedicated funding body has helped New Zealand produce world-class neuroscientists and research. It also uses the combined expertise and detailed knowledge of this group to help keep the public informed of the advances made in neurological disorder prevention and cures.

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